What Do You Think: Did Race Motivate Decision to Terminate Worker After Forklift Incidents?

Frank Ferreri

Birmingham, AL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Applying safety rules differently to members of different races can show that an employer violated federal civil rights law.

However, as a federal court recently pointed out, establishing such a charge requires showing that “similarly situated” employees of one race were treated more favorably than those of another despite engaging in nearly matching types of misconduct.

A group leader for a manufacturer was involved in an incident in which the forklift he operated collided with another employee’s forklift. Based on this incident and another incident earlier in the day in which the leader exceeded the limit of containers to be carried on a forklift, the leader was terminated.

In deciding to part ways with the leader, the manufacturer indicated that the leader operated the forklift “in an unsafe manner and endanger[ed] the welfare of other employees” in violation of the manufacturer’s safety policy.

In response to his termination, the leader sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, claiming that he was terminated because of his race and not due to safety concerns. He claimed that several other employees who were white were not terminated despite violating the safety policy as follows:

  1. An employee had five incidents involving running into objects while operating a forklift. This employee received a written warning.
  2. An employee drove into a roll-up door with a forklift but was not disciplined or terminated.
  3. An employee drove the forklift too close to a grinder stand and broke a mirror on the forklift; no investigation was performed, and the employee was not terminated.

Under Title VII, employers may not take an adverse action, such as termination, against an employee because of the employee’s race.

Did the manufacturer terminate the leader because of his race?

A. Yes. Other employees who had similar safety issues were treated more favorably.

B. No. The other employees weren’t similar enough to the leader to draw a comparison between their cases and his.

If you chose B, you agreed with the court in Lewis v. Hubble Power Systems Inc., No. 2:19-cv-00832-AMM (N.D. Ala. 06/11/21), which held that the leader didn’t establish his Title VII claim because his case didn’t line up closely enough with the other examples he cited.

The court explained that none of the three other employees was an appropriate “comparator” for determining whether the leader was treated differently based on his race. In the court’s view, the comparators weren’t “similarly situated in all material respects.” In particular, the court highlighted the following points that distinguished each of the three comparators from the leader:

  1. In the first employee’s case, the incidents of misconduct occurred “years apart,” and this employee was eventually terminated when he engaged in multiple instances of misconduct close in time to each other.
  2. Regarding the second employee, the court pointed out that striking a roll-up door was different from loading too many containers onto a forklift. Additionally, this employee worked in a different department, held a different job with the manufacturer, and reported to a different supervisor.
  3. With respect to the third comparator, the court also distinguished breaking a mirror from carrying too many containers and noted that this employee also was in a different department.

“None of the comparators’ incidents involved transporting loads that were too large, nor did the comparators’ forklifts contact another forklift that was being driven by another employee,” the court reasoned in ruling against the leader.

As a result, these employees weren’t “similarly situated” to the leader, and his Title VII case came up short.

This feature does not provide legal advice

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